Monday, June 30, 2008

A Confluence of Catastrophes

You couldn’t be blamed for turning away from this title. After all, you probably read, listen to, or watch the news every day. In the last couple of days we’ve been reminded of more flooding in the Midwest, wildfires in California, the stock market’s continued decline, record prices for crude, the mortgage crisis with Congress tied in knots, and all of that is without mentioning Iraq or Afghanistan. If all of that is not enough to depress you, then maybe you need to see a psychiatrist, or else chuckle at Lord Acton’s words below.

If the title and recitation of recent headlines doesn’t turn you off, my lack of qualifications to write about them might. My training is in history and theology, not economics and engineering. But because of friend who is an engineer and financial observers like Joseph Lazzaro (a.k.a. “Hunter” on Kos), I decided that it was time more of us non-specialists need to try to grasp this larger economic picture. It seems to me that we are experiencing the first waves of several mini-catastrophes, the confluence of which would constitute a major one. These mini-catastrophes are all inextricably linked: war, a sick national and global economy, global warming, and a collapsing infrastructure.

Read on at your own risk.

“History is a race between education and catastrophe.” H.G. Wells

“If some great catastrophe is not announced every morning, we feel a certain void. Nothing in the paper today, we sigh.” Lord Acton

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Albert Einstein

On the off chance that H.G. Wells might be right, education seems to be running a distant second to catastrophe.

First, there is the war. While a
significant majority of citizens want the U.S. to get out of Iraq, not to mention wanting an improvement in the economy, Congress is unable or unwilling to use its power to end involvement there. Many in Congress seem out of sync with the country, but maybe they sense that the drive to get out of Iraq is soft. Neither the population at large nor Congress seems to have gotten the message about the impact of the war on the economy.

Second, the war is connected to our current economic crisis. Iraq is the second most expensive war in history, surpassed only by World War II. In their book,
The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (March 3, 2008), Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes link war costs to the current economic crisis:
The spending on Iraq was a hidden cause of the current credit crunch because the US central bank responded to the massive financial drain of the war by flooding the American economy with cheap credit… That led to a housing bubble and a consumption boom, and the fallout was plunging the US economy into recession and saddling the next US president with the biggest budget deficit in history.
Third, add global warming to this already toxic economic mix. If the
California Air Resources Board is right in the report it issued on Thursday, global warming is adding additional strain to already an over-burdened economy. In 2006 the California legislature passed a law aiming to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020 in order to combat global warming. On Thursday a few details have emerged on how that is going to happen.
Over the next 10 years, it will probably change the kind of car you drive, the kind of fuel you put in it, the amount you pay for electricity, where that electricity comes from, the way you heat or cool your home and how you do business. Among other things, it calls for an ambitious cap-and-trade program involving seven Western states and three Canadian provinces. It calls for more fuel-efficient vehicles, a big hike in wind and solar power, more energy-efficient appliances and stricter building standards, and even sets up a voluntary program to build methane digesters over manure pits at the state's dairies and ranches.
If those measures sound expensive, they are. But if Mary Nichols, chair of the Air Resources Board, is right many of the added costs will be made up by savings they encourage and the economic activity they generate.
Conservatives have largely given up arguing that global warming isn't happening or that it isn't caused by humans, but they persist in claiming that the costs of fighting it aren't worth the benefits. If it makes economic as well as environmental sense to cut carbon, they're left without a plank to stand on.
Nichols’ may be an over-optimistic view about measures that—while the most ambitious in the nation—may be too little too late.

And, last but in no way least, there is our disintegrating infrastructure. The wake up call came in a 2005
report by American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) that graded America’s infrastructure. What constitutes “America’s infrastructure”? Aviation, Bridges, Dams, Drinking Water, Energy, Hazardous Waste, Navigable Waterways, Public Parks and Recreation, Rail, Roads, Schools, Security, Solid Waste, Transit, Waste Water. Quite a list, huh? The average grade was D with no grade above C.

Last January California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican; Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell, a Democrat; and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an Independent came together to form a coalition that will lobby for federal investment in America’s decaying infrastructure. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg
spoke for the group:
"We have an infrastructure crisis. Nonstop television showed us in New Orleans when the levees broke, and Minneapolis when the bridge collapsed. But the governors and the mayors of this country every day see at an operational level bridges that are rusting away, and tracks that can't carry high speed trains, and power transmission lines that can't keep up with demand, and airports that need new runways, and water lines that need backup systems, and sewage plants that leak into the rivers and the oceans."

"If we continue to ignore these problems we are going to suffer more collapses, more human tragedies, and more economic pain, and that's just in the short term," Bloomberg said. "Over the long run we really are going to risk losing our place as the world's leading super power."
The pictures of the collapsing levees in the Midwest over the past weeks have made a lot of people aware of the infrastructure crisis. Of course, they were made aware in 1993 when the last floods of this magnitude overwhelmed the levees. Commissions were appointed and studies were done all citing the need to restore the levees. But nothing was done.

The two governors and mayor pointed out that other countries are investing in modern infrastructure.
"China, Japan, India, Dubai, Malaysia, Europe, all of them are investing in modern infrastructure at higher rates that we are here in the United States," the mayor said. "But Congress is setting back and resting on its accomplishments of past generations, our parents' generation. And they can only go on this way for so long before the rest of the world starts to pass us by. And we are here to say we cannot let that happen. We cannot hand our children a country that is crumbling from neglect."
Confirming the lead that other countries are taking, last week,
Merrill Lynch raised its annual infrastructure spending estimate for emerging markets by 80% in light of increased government expenditures.
Merrill Lynch has raised its emerging markets infrastructure forecast to $2.25 trillion annually, or 5% of GDP, from $1.25 trillion over the next three years, due to more aggressive government spending programmes and higher analyst estimates.

Infrastructure spending—which Merrill Lynch calls a long-term solution to inflation—is expected to be fuelled by decades of under-investment in power, transportation, and water. Merrill Lynch expects 70% of infrastructure spending to be concentrated in China, the Middle East and Russia{bold mine}.
Joseph Lazzaro looked a the global need to invest in infrastructure. Citing a report, titled, "Infrastructure: A Global Opportunity for Investors" Lazzaro notes
that $41 trillion will be needed to modernize urban water, electricity, and transportation systems globally, during the 2005-2030 period… In the United States, the figure is $1.6 trillion, according to research by the American Society of Civil Engineers. There are two distinct but massive infrastructure tasks: in emerging markets, a massive build-out to support growth; in the United States and the developed world, a focus on repair and replacement, according to U.S. Global Investors.
Where is the money coming from to pay for this? According to
Harry Moroz, in his article, “The Age of Infrastructure,”
Senator McCain's infrastructure solution comes as no surprise: eliminate earmarks for pet projects and prioritize spending to identify projects with the greatest infrastructure needs. Senator McCain even blamed the Minnesota bridge collapse on earmarks. Additionally, Senator McCain has not been friendly to Amtrak.

The Senator has been silent about proactive engagement of infrastructure problems during his presidential campaign: his approach utilizes the negative, government waste principles that are aligned with, if more noble than, the current administration's starve-the-beast philosophy.
Obama’s position was set out in a speech at a General Motors assembly plant in Janesville, WI calling
for the creation of a "National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank" that would invest $60 billion over 10 years in highways, technology and other projects. It would be an effort, Obama will say, to "rebuild America" and create 2 million jobs in the process.

Obama will say he would pay for the bank by "ending this war in Iraq. It's time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money on putting America back together instead."
Common sense says that we will not be able to undertake the herculean infrastructure tasks without ending the war in Iraq.

The good news about this recovering our infrastructure,
said economist David Wang to Lazzaro in April
…the work would create good, largely high-paying jobs, Wang said, another incentive for infrastructure spending. Even better, he says, almost all of the dollars would be based in the United States, not in foreign countries, and recirculate through U.S. towns and counties.
Don't expect to see any start on the infrastructure problems before a new administration takes office. The way I see it, the first step is to see that Obama is elected. The second step is to start the process of getting us out of Iraq. The third step will be to establish the National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank and get to work. In the meantime, we need to get serious about education so we don’t run second to catastrophe.

- Milo

Friday, June 27, 2008

Diane Smock, George Bush and SMU

Meet Diane Smock—member of the Greenville City Council in South Carolina, attorney and former judge. She’s also a member of a United Methodist Church where she considers herself an “average” member. She has served on church committees and taught Sunday School, but she hasn’t been involved in the regional and national workings of the church. Until now, that is.

Meet George W. Bush, soon to be retired president of the United States, and his wife Laura, graduate and member of the board of trustees at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Also meet Dick and Lynne Cheney, who like George and Laura claim membership in the United Methodist Church.

A special connection was created between these United Methodists when Smock learned that SMU was the proposed site for a presidential complex. She did something she had never done before; she sent a petition opposing the plan to the denomination’s top lawmaking body, the General Conference. In NeXus, an independent news publication for United Methodists, Cynthia Astle
“I felt it was the only avenue I knew to take at the time,” Ms. Smock explained. “General Conference is supposed to speak on behalf of us members – they debate everything from administration to doctrine and theology. I just thought that if that’s the body {that makes decisions for the church}, they ought to know how we feel.”
In something of a surprise, her voice was heard.
Instead of dismissing her petition outright as they had done with hundreds of others, delegates to the 2008 General Conference, held in late April in Fort Worth, TX, referred Ms. Smock’s petition to the South Central Jurisdiction, a 10-state regional unit which owns the land on which SMU sits. Now Ms. Smock and thousands of other United Methodists are waiting to see what the South Central Jurisdiction does with her petition when it meets July 15-19 in Dallas, TX.
So what’s the big deal about having the Bush presidential library at SMU? Meet William K. McElvaney, an icon in Dallas and in the United Methodist Church. Dr. McElvaney, long a United Methodist pastor in Dallas before becoming president of UM-related St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, MO, and currently LeVann Professor Emeritus of Preaching at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, has been in the leadership opposed to the establishment of this complex at SMU. In an interview with NeXus, Bill was asked what he saw at stake in the debate over a Bush Institute at SMU.
McElvaney: There are important things at stake both for SMU and United Methodism. The idea of a policy institute reporting only to itself on our campus is contrary to what universities understand themselves to be about. Universities are about critical thinking, searching for truth unencumbered by ideological background, so a partisan institute whether right or left seems to me to be an ill fit for any university campus, church-related or otherwise. It fails the test of impartial inquiry that is basic to the life and mission of a university.

So when either SMU or the {South Central Jurisdiction} College of Bishops claims this is about open inquiry, I simply cannot agree with that. I don’t think it is about open inquiry. The library is one thing, but the political or partisan institute is something else. It’s committed obviously by its own statement to foster and develop the Bush philosophy and practices, and that’s something that I don’t want to see happen to our university.

There’s a huge disconnect between the record of the Bush Administration, which is to be continued by the policy institute, and the values, including the Social Principles, of The United Methodist Church. We have never stood for pre-emptive wars, for torture, for doing poorly on the environment, or for favoring the rich over the poor. Those are basic things that are stake that I think will affect Methodism and SMU for a long time.
When the South Central Jurisdiction, the body actually holding title to the land on which SMU resides, meets in July, McElvaney hopes that the Jurisdictional Conference will divide the question between the {presidential} library and museum, and the policy institute.
I think there are many who will approve the library because of historical studies that it could make available, but who may not be willing to establish or approve a policy institute.
When asked why the opposition was making such a fuss now that it seems that the Bush complex is a done deal, he said:
The whole procedure from the beginning has been characterized by a lack of transparency. So I think one of the things that needs to be accomplished by democratic principles and church principles is transparency. People deserve to know what is happening in their university, what is happening in their church. That has not been forthcoming from SMU or from our College of Bishops. They’ve sought not even to have a vote on this at Jurisdictional Conference, so while the bishops spoke about “holy conferencing” at General Conference, the South Central College would deprive the delegates from their own conferences of having a vote about this. I think that’s alien to what our church at its best is about and alien to what democracy is about. So we want to get transparency…

I think it’s very regrettable that our South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops have accommodated themselves to the Bush Foundation instead of to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the champion of the poor and the advocate for justice. I find it very difficult to understand how our bishops who are supposed to be the shepherds of our people and to have some sense of prophetic ministry can kowtow to the Bush Administration as well as to a very partisan SMU Board {of Trustees}.
On July 15-19, when the Jurisdictional Conference meets, this year in Dallas, it will have to act on the petition initiated by Diane Smock and referred by General Conference, something the conference leadership did not want to have to do. It was, in the mind of the bishops of the jurisdiction, a done deal. It may still be, but they will now have to go on record publicly with their decision. And, who knows, there may be some other United Methodists who are delegates to this jurisdictional conference who care about what the establishment of the Bush Institute at SMU will mean for the university and the United Methodist Church, and who, like Diane Smock, Bill McElvaney, Andrew Weaver, and many others will stand up at the conference.

What can you do? A) If you are a delegate to the jurisdictional conference you can support efforts to divide the question between a library and museum, and the institute, and vote to reject the institute. B) If you are a United Methodist in the South Central Jurisdiction you can write to your bishop and offer your perspective. C) If you are a member of a United Methodist Church anywhere you can sign the national petition objecting to the establishment of the institute. D) If you are a member of some other church, or if you wouldn’t go near any church but care about academic freedom and integrity, talk to your Methodist friends. If you don’t have any, find some and let them know what you think.

My friend, Andrew Weaver, who has been one of the spearheads of this grassroots opposition movement,
often reminds me:
In her final column before her untimely death, Molly Ivins wrote:
"We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders."
- Milo

Monday, June 23, 2008

Requiem for Morality

Michael Lazzaro, a columnist for Daily Kos with the byline "Hunter," wrote the following article on Sunday, June 22, 2008. I thought you might like to see his whole article instead of my excerpting from it. He titled it "Requiem" but I have added the words that make up Hunter's epithet for the Bush administration, "Requiem for Morality." Take care, the language is harsh. You'll have to decide whether or not it is appropiate.

Of all the things I despise about the Bush administration, the one I will forever loathe most is how they made morality a minority position(bold mine). It was the standard operating procedure of the Bush years that ethics was considered quaint, that pride in government was considered hopelessly idealistic, and that morality was the stuff of starry eyed fools.

I could believe that the United States would be reduced to torture; we have tarnished our history with more and with less, over the last two centuries, and it would be naive to presume it had ended, say, with the internment of Japanese Americans, or with the officially sanctioned witch hunts of the paranoid and rigorously manipulative McCarthy era. But I would have found it harder to imagine, even eight years ago, that human torture would be considered the more noble choice than refraining from it, or that those that opposed it would be met with such mockery, or such flag-waving revulsion.

The concept, after all, is simple: one should not torture potentially innocent people. Forget the more unambiguous version, one should not torture anyone -- we are not even halfway there. We can base the premise simply on the notion that one should not torture innocent people to find out whether they "know" something, and you would still find that central element of morality, of basic human principle, of Christianity or any other religion you can name, to be, in America, in 2008, a controversial statement likely to get you condemned as a fool or worse. If you are opposed to the torture of the innocent, you will face the wrath of fat, hateful radio blowhards. You will face condescending, patronizing, entirely amoral lectures on newly discovered legality of the acts from administration lawyers speaking from the editorial pages of our newspapers. You will be told that what you consider torture, what every other society including our own has considered torture up until this very moment of time, is not in fact torture, and that you have affection for terrorists if you think otherwise.

This is the legacy of the Bush administration, and likely the one that will stick long past the other violations of law or ethics. We have glorified brutality, and demonized compassion, and sought to make pariahs out of any that object. And, as a society, we have accepted these premises, and adapted them into our culture, and made them American.

It is always foolish to presume that one era is better or worse than another. America, like any other country, meets fearful times with fearful actions. Brutality justifies brutality; an external threat trumps internal freedom; fear begets simple-minded belligerence from whatever portion of the government or population happens to be simple-minded. It has been the same in every era of conflict. Surely, if previous wars required the systematic purging of Asians from the American landscape, or required careful monitoring of the perceived loyalties of entire industries, a few stray innocents kept without trial or recourse, abused to break their spirit, declared without protection of any treaty or government, hidden from the Red Cross to prevent evidence of their abuse from being known, a few killed... we are supposed to be grateful, for that. It is, after previous wars, moderation.

In all of this, however, the more unambiguously moral the position, the more despised it is. I will remember the Bush administration not for any bold speeches, but for an unending sequence of snide, guttural croaks in front of podiums, in which the latest blasphemy against mankind or God is uttered with perfect assurance, or with a dismissive sneer, or with ominous opines on the motivations of those that think differently.

There were those that considered "preemptive" war an abomination; they were considered naive, and dismissed as artifacts of an earlier time with shamefully rigid thinking. There were those that thought bombing the cities of Iraq, regardless of the viciousness and corruption of their leader, under the confused banner of maybe al Qaeda or something was too high a price for an uninvolved civilian population to pay, regardless of the actions of that leader. An opinion like that was taken as evidence of secret sympathies for that leader.

There were those that thought the Geneva Conventions should apply; they were dismissed as rubes. There were those who thought those that were turned in to United States forces as terrorists should have, at some point, a trial: the larger voice howled of the danger of giving any voice to those people, whether innocent or not.

There were those that thought that, even casting aside evidence that torture does not work, even casting aside laws against it, even casting aside the impossibility of separating guilty from innocent in front of the teeth of a barking dog or using water and a rag, torture is immoral; for speaking such thoughts, the speakers become hated.

At the same time, we were lectured on the will of God from those that see hurricanes as divine judgement against tolerance; we were told that intolerance is the moral position. We were told that if there is even "a one percent" chance that someone is a terrorist, granting them doubt or mercy was a fool's game.

We were told, in short, that calculated brutality was a requirement of government. In the end, the greatest condemnation of the Bush administration is not that they believe that, but that they have almost managed to get us to believe it.

If it were merely the war on terrorism, that would be something different, though not necessarily better, but in every aspect of governance we continually have been told that the ethical position is the stupid, foolish one, or that being offended at corruption is the childish position. No news outlets demanded answers, when the Justice Department was staffed with those loyal to party, not country; it was considered expected. The outing of a CIA agent as payback was politics as normal; the urgings to prosecutors to prosecute Americans differently according to party affiliation was for a long while presumed merely one of the perks of power. The task of rebuilding Iraq was considered secondary to staffing it with die-hard conservatives, even if they had not even the slightest bit of expertise towards the job. Scientific reports by the government were either quashed or the findings changed in order to fit The Approved Version Of Reality; it barely resulted in whimpers. Forget the difficult or controversial decisions, even the most basic ones were reduced to simple equations of party advantage and ideological loyalty.

Myself? I do not believe it is anything unusual. And if I did, I would not say so, lest I be branded an idealist, someone incapable of understanding the intricacies of how a fine structural web of corruptions and misrepresentations and outright vicious cruelty is a required element of good governance. I know these corruptions are good, because the editorial pages and airwaves are filled with people telling me they are good, or at least nothing to worry about; I can only presume that they have an expertise I do not, because they are in ink, and on the screen, and you and I are not. Our opinions are too controversial. We are against the torture of innocents, and that is enough to disqualify us from being serious about the fate of our nation. We believe illegal acts should be investigated and punished, and that makes us too naive to be proper guardians of discourse. We once thought even a president was required to follow the law; we have been disabused of that notion not only by the President, but by Congress as well.

Surely, we do not understand the intricacies of these things.

I would like to believe that one of the main reasons why President Bush's approval rating is as low as any president since they've been polling is that in the name of religion he actually made morality a minority concern. I would be interested in knowing what you think.

Friday, June 20, 2008

House Approves Unconstitutional Surveillance Legislation

There are not words to describe my dismay and disgust at the House vote this morning on H.R. 6304, or The FISA Amendments Act of 2008. By a vote of 293-129 the House voted to sanction warrantless wiretapping and handed immunity to telecommunications companies for their roles in domestic spying.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, is pretty angry but she is more restrained than I feel right now:
"It’s Christmas morning at the White House thanks to this vote. The House just wrapped up some expensive gifts for the administration and their buddies at the phone companies. Watching the House fall to scare tactics and political maneuvering is especially infuriating given the way it stood up to pressure from the president on this same issue just months ago. In March we thought the House leadership had finally grown a backbone by rejecting the Senate’s FISA bill. Now we know they will not stand up for the Constitution.

"No matter how often the opposition calls this bill a ‘compromise,’ it is not a meaningful compromise, except of our constitutional rights. The bill allows for mass, untargeted and unwarranted surveillance of all communications coming in to and out of the United States. The courts’ role is superficial at best, as the government can continue spying on our communications even after the FISA court has objected. Democratic leaders turned what should have been an easy FISA fix into the wholesale giveaway of our Fourth Amendment rights.

"More than two years after the president’s domestic spying was revealed in the pages of the New York Times, Congress’ fury and shock has dissipated to an obedient whimper. After scrambling for years to cover their tracks, the phone companies and the administration are almost there. This immunity provision will effectively destroy Americans’ chance to have their deserved day in court and will kill any possibility of learning the extent of the administration’s lawless actions. The House should be ashamed of itself. The fate of the Fourth Amendment is now in the Senate’s hands. We can only hope senators will show more courage than their colleagues in the House."
The Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week, but I doubt that they will do any different.

Why? Why do only 129 members of the House trust the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment? “The war on terrorism” is the standard answer. But for those who think that the Constitution should be set aside because of this threat to our country understand neither the Constitution nor our history well. In the recent Supreme Court decision
restoring the right of habeas corpus to detainees at Guantanamo Bay Justice Anthony Kennedy put it well:
The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law. The Framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, a part of that law.
How I wish the other 293 members of the House of Representatives had such confidence in the laws and Constitution!

I have been writing about this issue since
January and as late as June 10th wrote that this was a fight we could win: “We’ve come too far to lose now; it is one battle for liberty that we can win.”

It looks like I was wrong because I don’t expect the Senate to do any better when it takes up the bill next week.

This morning, when defeat was clear, I began with self-accusation. Did I not make enough calls, write enough letters, write enough columns, or talk to enough people about what is at stake here? Whatever I and others did to protest was not enough.

Then, there was self-doubt. Did Congress really know best? I have a friend whose political instincts I generally trust who probably supports the “compromise” bill. I’m going to talk to him and see if he can convince me that Caroline Fredrickson is somehow wrong, or that the damage was not as great as she imagines.

Instead of fretting about what happened in the House today I will go back to the ancient Chinese story I told in my
last blog about “The Foolish Old Man Who Moved Mountains” and rededicate myself to the next phase of the struggle to regain the liberties we lost today, however long it takes. I hope to meet you on that road.

- Milo

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Foolish Old Man of Sangzao

Principal Ye Zhiping (Shiho Fukada for The New York Times)

My days writing a blog seem filled with catastrophe, war, and outrage at those who do not stand up for what is right. But when the history of last month’s cataclysmic earthquake in China is written, the story of Ye Zhiping will be remembered. Hopefully, it will not only be remembered in China.

I can’t say for sure that Principal Ye knew the story of the "The Foolish Old Man Who Moved the Mountains," but I suspect that he did, as well as the Sangzao Middle School students and their parents. This ancient Chinese folktale dates back to the Han Dynasty and is well known throughout China.

When I first read about Principal Ye, I thought of this story. I realize that the story is not ecologically sound—the image brings to my mind actual scenes of mountains in Appalachia decimated by coal mining—but I hope that doesn’t get in the way of appreciating the old tale. This is the way I remember it:

Long, long ago, an old man who lived in northern China was known as the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain. His house faced south and beyond his doorway stood the two great peaks, Taihang and Wangwu, obstructing the way. He called his children, and hoe in had they began to dig up these mountains with great determination. Another greybeard, known as the Wise Old Man, saw them and said derisively, “How silly of you to do this! It is quite impossible for you few to dig up these two huge mountains.”

The Foolish Old Man replied, “When I die, my children will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandchildren, and then their children and grandchildren, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can’t we clear them away?”

The Heavenly Emperor received a report of what the old man was doing, but he was not afraid of the old man's tenacity. Instead he was moved by the old man’s determination in the face of a seemingly impossible task and decided to help him. The Heavenly Emperor ordered the two sons of Kua’ershi to lift the two mountains on their backs and move them, one east of Shuo and the other south of Yong.

After this colossal feat, there were no more mountains between the Jizhou and Han Rivers and the foolish old man and his family were able to walk straight between them whenever they liked.

Ye Zhiping knew about the shoddy construction of at least one of the Sangzao Middle School buildings because he had been a young teacher there when the building was constructed.
"Quality inspectors were supposed to be here to oversee construction of this building," he said. "When the foundation was laid, they should have been here. When the concrete was put into the pillars, they should have been here. But they weren't. In the end, no government official dared to come inspect this building because it was built without any standards…"

"I was among the first teachers who moved into this building, and I was pretty young," Ye said. "Our awareness of safety wasn't the same as now."
Ye’s attitude changed after he became principal twelve years ago.
If I knew there was a hidden danger, and I didn't do anything about it, then I would be the one responsible," he said.
From the day he became principal he didn’t waste time. He set about to get the funds for a complete overhaul of the buildings. One can only imagine the response of the “wise old greybeards” in the bureaucracy when he sought the money for the reconstruction. The county was poor and Sangzao was only a farming village. But Ye continued to pester the officials until he got 400,000 yuan (about $60,000). From 1996 to 1999 he personally oversaw a complete overhaul of the structure.
Most crucial were changes made to concrete pillars and floor panels. Each classroom had four rectangular pillars that were thickened so they jutted from the walls. Up and down the pillars, workers drilled holes and inserted iron reinforcing rods because the original ones were not enough, Ye said. The concrete slab floors were secured so they would be able to withstand intense shaking.
There were probably other greybeards in the school who thought that the principal had more important things to do than spend his time supervising the renovation.

Ye not only brought structural integrity to the buildings; he also had students and teachers prepare for a disaster. They rehearsed an emergency evacuation plan twice a year.

On May 12, Principal Ye was in a town fifty kilometers away when the earthquake came. As he worked his way back to his school he saw the rubble to which buildings had been reduced on the way. On the day that 10,000 students were crushed by collapsing school buildings, 1,000 of them in a school less than 20 miles away, the students at Sangzao Middle School managed to evacuate in less than two minutes.
The students lined up row by row on the outdoor basketball courts…. When the head count was complete, their fate was clear: All 2,323 were alive.
Students and parents credited “Angel Ye.”
“We’re very thankful,” Qiu Yanfang, 62, the grandmother of a student, said as she sat outside the school knitting a brown sweater. “The principal helped ease the nation’s loss, both the psychological loss and the physical loss.”
These days, students are seen darting in and out of the school to retrieve books, ducking under blue tape clearly marked danger. The building looks secure enough, but not to Principal Ye. He said it has to be torn down and a new one built, not simply to withstand an 8.0 that came this time, but to withstand an 11 or 12. And he expects to be there to see that it is built right.

What was it Thomas Cahill said of history?
We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage — almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence… But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance.”
Ye Zhiping was responsible for one of those moments.

- Milo

Monday, June 16, 2008

Iraq - Who's on First?

Do you remember the old Abbott and Costello routine—“Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know is on third”? That’s what came to mind as I tried to sort out what’s going on in Baghdad and Washington. Things are rarely as they seem in Iraq, or in that country’s relations with the United States. Based on a number of reports published yesterday, things are not going well. But those reports depend on understanding the Bush administration’s plan five years ago to get a long-term strategic agreement with the Iraqi government.

Five months ago, on January 12, Michael Hirsh filed this
In remarks to the traveling press, delivered from the Third Army operation command center here, Bush said that negotiations were about to begin on a long-term strategic partnership with the Iraqi government modeled on the accords the United States has with Kuwait and many other countries. Crocker, who flew in from Baghdad with Petraeus to meet with the president, elaborated: "We're putting our team together now, making preparations in Washington," he told reporters. "The Iraqis are doing the same. And in the few weeks ahead, we would expect to get together to start this negotiating process." The target date for concluding the agreement is July, says Gen. Doug Lute, Bush's Iraq coordinator in the White House—in other words, just in time for the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Why do we need such an agreement? We didn’t seem to think we needed one when we invaded Iraq over five years ago. But once we handed over power to the newly elected government of Iraq the Bush administration found it convenient to have the blessing of the United Nations. So on June 8, 2004, the UN Security Council approved resolution 1546, endorsing the formation of the interim government, welcoming “the end of the occupation and the prospect of elections in January 2005.”
It also reaffirms the authorization for the multinational force under unified command established under resolution 1511 (2003) and decides that the multinational force shall have the authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq in accordance with the Iraqi request for the continued presence of the multinational force.
The UN resolution has been renewed in more or less the same language for each year since, but the legitimation of international occupying forces in Iraq expires at the end 2008.

Rather than get another extension of the UN resolution, which might prove troublesome, the Bush administration chose to negotiate a “status of forces” agreement directly with Iraq, analagous to ones the U.S. has with South Korea, Germany, and Japan. Five months ago, Hirsh saw clearly what was at stake in such an agreement. No wonder his
article was titled “Sorry, Barack, You’ve Lost Iraq.”
Most significant of all, the new partnership deal with Iraq, including a status of forces agreement that would then replace the existing Security Council mandate authorizing the presence of the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, will become a sworn obligation for the next president. It will become just another piece of the complex global security framework involving a hundred or so countries with which Washington now has bilateral defense or security cooperation agreements. Last month, Sen. Hillary Clinton urged Bush not to commit to any such agreement without congressional approval. The president said nothing about that on Saturday, but Lute said last fall that the Iraqi agreement would not likely rise to the level of a formal treaty requiring Senate ratification. Even so, it would be difficult if not impossible for future presidents to unilaterally breach such a pact.
Five months later (yesterday), the New York Times editorialized:
President Bush has made clear that he plans to keep American troops in Iraq for as long as he is in office. But this deal appears to be an especially cynical attempt to tie his successor to his failed Iraq policy.(bold mine)
What the Bush administration can’t win in public support for the war, it is trying to win with an agreement flying beneath the need for Senate ratification but which would significantly hamper a new administration’s determination to extricate the U.S. from Iraq.

Alas, things are not going well for this made-in-Crawford plan, and the unlikely trouble-maker is none other than the
Iraqi Prime Minister.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki raised the possibility Friday that his country won't sign a status of forces agreement with the United States and that it will ask U.S. troops to go home when their United Nations mandate to be in Iraq expires at the end of the year.

Al-Maliki's comment came after weeks of complaints from Shi'ite Muslim lawmakers that U.S. proposals for a continued troop presence would infringe on Iraq's sovereignty.

"Iraq has another option that it may use," al-Maliki said during a visit to Amman, Jordan. "The Iraqi government, if it wants, has the right to demand that the UN terminate the presence of international forces on Iraqi sovereign soil."
What could possibly have come between the U.S. and its staunch ally, partner in democratizing the Middle East, and client?
In the first proposal the U.S. made, there were at least three things that caught the eye and raised the ire of the Iraqis (the U.S. has not made public its proposal):
Earlier, al-Maliki said talks with the United States on a status of forces agreement "reached an impasse" after U.S. negotiators presented a draft that would have given the United States access to 58 military bases, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops and private contractors.
Read them carefully: long-term access to 58 military bases; control of Iraqi airspace, and immunity prosecution for U.S. troops and private contractors. Oh yes; there was one more thing: freedom for the U.S. to unilaterally initiate military actions against Iraqis without consultation with the Iraqi.

I don’t see what the Iraqis could possibly complain about because when Bush announced that Iraq was a sovereign nation the Iraqi’s suggest that he really didn’t mean sovereign. If the Bush administration doesn’t remember history, the Iraqis and the other Middle Eastern peoples do. The proposed arrangements appear to be straight out of the colonial era’s extra-territorial arrangements which gave the colonial powers unfettered authority in the colonies. Despite the Bush administration claims over the past few weeks that it has not been pressuring the Iraqis for an indefinite military presence in the country,
documents recently declassified under the Freedom of Information act show that since November 2003 the administration has been seeking an agreement that would guarantee a permanent unfettered military presence in Iraq.
“When it developed its initial plans for a security pact, the U.S. wanted virtually unlimited freedom of action for its forces--including private contractors," said Archive analyst Joyce Battle. "In addition to freedom to wage military operations as it saw fit--and to arrest, detain, and interrogate Iraqis at will--U.S. demands even extended to priority use of public utilities. This was after the invasion had led to the collapse of Iraq's already fragile infrastructure and Iraqi civilians--old and young, healthy, sick, and disabled--were getting by with a few hours of electricity a day--if they were lucky."
Surprise! Surprise! The Iraqis are complaining.
The Iraqis rejected those demands, and U.S. diplomats have submitted a second draft, which Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said included several concessions.

Among them would be allowing Iraq to prosecute contractors for violations of Iraqi law and a requirement that U.S. forces turn over to Iraqi authorities any Iraqis the Americans detain.

Salih said the government wants to reach an agreement but that Iraq wouldn't be pressured into accepting terms that compromised its rights.

"Our American allies need to understand and realize that this agreement must be respectful of Iraqi sovereignty," Salih said.

Al-Maliki indicated that officials on both sides wanted an agreement. "Negotiations will continue," he said, "by adding new ideas from Plans A, then B, then C, until we reach the decision that ensures the sovereignty of Iraq."
The removal of immunity for “security contractors” (read Hessians, hired guns or soldiers of fortune not under the control of the military because the Bush administration cannot recruit enough soldiers into the armed services to fight his war and who are paid far more than the paltry salaries of U.S. soldiers) may be problematic.
The change is sure to prove controversial, because security contractors will be reluctant to continue to work in Iraq’s dangerous environment if they can be prosecuted in Iraqi courts.
Count on the Bush administration to find some way to work around this. Also, count on their finding a way to come to terms with the Iraqi government. President Bush was heard to say over the weekend that if he were a betting man, he would bet on an agreement.

Maybe! But there is another ingredient to put into this already confusing mix—Iran. Pro-Iran Shiites in Iraq are
opposed to the deal, as is Iran itself.
Iran has led a vocal campaign against the deal, with powerful former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani vowing last week that people in Iraq and the region won't allow it. That has led to U.S. accusations that Tehran is actively trying to scuttle the agreement — putting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government in a tight spot between two rival allies.
Over the last few days, the Iraqi Prime Minister has been reassuring Iran, promising that Iraq will not be a launching pad for any attack on Iran. One might look at al-Maliki’s dilemma from two different but not unrelated perspectives. On the one hand, he may not want to offend Iran because it is Iraq’s old enemy. On the other hand, he may see that Iraq’s long-term interests lie more with Iran than with the U.S. And that probably worries President Bush if he’s gotten past “Who’s on first”.

The proposed agreement is an albatross that will hang around the neck of a new administration in Washington and around any successive administration in Iraq. Can Congress stop this agreement? Will it? “I Don’t Know is on third.”

- Milo

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Justice—Habeas Corpus—Vindicated By a Thread

Guantanamo Bay - "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom"?

The good news is that today the United States Supreme Court restored the constitutional right of habeas corpus to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. I heard this news this afternoon in an email from Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, with whom I had some earlier correspondence on this issue:
Today the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a stinging rebuke to the Bush-Cheney Administration's handling of military detainees at Guantanamo Bay -- while vindicating you, me, and thousands of others who have spoken out against the Administration's unwise and unconstitutional policies from the very beginning.

In today's 5-4 Boumediene v. Bush decision, the Court ruled that stripping habeas corpus rights from detainees at Guantanamo Bay was unconstitutional. In so doing, the Court reaffirmed the fundamental right of habeas corpus -- the right that all Americans, and those prisoners under American control, have to challenge the government's reasons for imprisoning them -- a fundamental American right that underpins our individual freedoms and liberty.
Habeas corpus is the freedom from being thrown in prison illegally, with no help, no end in sight and no due process. As the ACLU said in its release later in the afternoon
“…no president should ever be given the sole power to call someone an enemy, wave his or her hand, and lock that person away indefinitely.”
That is not, of course, the way the Bush administration has viewed it. A few days ago I received a two page letter from the White House, written by a Nancy Theis, Special Assistant to the President and Director of Presidential Correspondence. This was in response to several letters I had written to the president on this matter. Speaking for President Bush, she said
“Under the Constitution, Presidents have the wartime power to authorize the trial by military commission of enemy combatants accused of war crimes and related offenses. Military commissions provide a full and fair trial while protecting valuable and sensitive intelligence sources and methods. This practice ensures the safety of the accused and all those participating in the process and aids the effective conduct of military operations.”
What the Supreme Court did today was to rebuke the president of the United States for usurping authority that was never his. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
wrote in today’s landmark decision,
The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law. The Framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, a part of that law.
Today’s decision is also a reminder to Congress that it doesn’t have the right to compromise the constitutional right of habeas corpus either. Yesterday, before the Supreme Court decision I received a letter from Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon with whom you have rightly guessed that I have also had correspondence about this matter. This is what he said about Congress’ role in this matter before today’s decision:
As you may know, the 109th Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which was signed into law by President Bush in October 2006. The Military Commissions Act allows the government to hold detainees indefinitely, gives them no chance to challenge their detention, and condones the use of torture and coercive treatment.

I opposed this badly flawed bill because I believe that it is possible to fight terrorism ferociously while still protecting the bedrock civil liberties enshrined in our Constitution. The Military Commissions Act fails to meet this test. The Act undermines the American values upon which our country was founded, damages our nation’s reputation abroad, and may make Americans, including our brave soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, less safe.

Because of this, I have used my seat in the Senate to try to correct the Military Commissions Act’s misguided provisions. For example, in September 2007, I supported an amendment to the 2008 Department of Defense authorization bill that would have restored the right of habeas corpus to detainees. Unfortunately, this amendment was filibustered. You may also be pleased to know that I have cosponsored Senator Chris Dodd’s Restoring the Constitution Act, S. 576. Among other things, this bill would appropriately limit the application of the “unlawful enemy combatant” designation to individuals actually detained on the battlefield, restore the constitutionally protected right of habeas corpus to all detainees, and prohibit the use of evidence gained by torture or coercion. This bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Armed Services, where it awaits further consideration.
Senator Wyden has been vindicated by today’s Supreme Court decision.

In the beginning, I said “the good news today…” which might lead one to suspect that there was also some “bad news.” The bad news today that four of the nine Justices of the Supreme Court—Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito —dissented, which is a warning that four of nine Justices sworn to uphold the Constitution do not so value the bedrock constitutional provision of habeas corpus. Justice in the land hangs by a thread.

When I began to this political
blog in January, I said it would be constructed around these words of Wendell Berry—a farmer, essayist, conservationist, novelist, teacher, and poet:
“The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”
Today may be a day when “something better” was added to our history, even if by only a 5-4 vote.
- Milo

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Don't Forget About FISA

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

The struggle in Congress over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is not over. Go back to Friday, March 14, 2008 when the House passed a bill that didn’t include immunity for the telecommunication companies. Earlier the Senate passed a bill that did grant such immunity. Since that time without a new bill, those who gather intelligence have agreed that the sky hasn’t fallen and they have been able to gather intelligence legally under the old bill. The Senate and the House still have to get together if a bill is to be passed this session. The President continues to insist that he will veto any bill that doesn’t provide immunity.

Has it been so long that you have forgotten what’s at stake? Letting big telecoms off the hook for their wrongdoing would derail the pursuit of justice in the ongoing investigations of the wiretapping scandal. Ongoing lawsuits are vital in bringing to light the role of the Bush administration in spying on its own citizens, and granting amnesty would render those cases moot.

During these months, the telecoms have been busy lobbying to have immunity added to the bill. We have only the lobbying report for the first quarter—the one for the last three months won’t be out until after the end of June. For the
first quarter:
Twenty-one organizations reported lobbying for AT&T on FISA, although many of them reported working on behalf of the company on other issues, too. Likewise, 17 reported lobbying on FISA for Verizon, and two more reported the same for Sprint Nextel.

Three firms reported lobbying on the issue for both AT&T and Verizon. That does not count the lobbying of each company’s in-house government affairs team, all three of which reported lobbying on FISA.

Altogether, the companies and some of their allies in the business world spent more than $14 million lobbying in just the first three months of this year. The Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association are among those that have lobbied in favor of retroactive legal immunity from the lawsuits.
We can only guess what the figures for the current quarter will be. As
McJoan of Daily Kos wrote on Thursday
It's not a very fair fight, if you look at it just in terms of money… And on the other side, the ACLU, EFF, and, well, the people. Oh, yeah, and the Constitution. Seems like in an election year like this one is shaping up to be, our friends in Congress might take a chance on trusting the people on this issue.
John McCain, who once opposed illegal wiretapping and immunity for the telecoms, is now humming a
different tune. Go back to November 2007 when he was asked directly if he would support S. 2248 providing immunity.
On November 30, 2007 McCain sent us this response via e-mail:
“When companies provide private records of Americans to the government without proper legal subpoena, warrants, or other legal orders, their heart may be in the right place, but their actions undermine our respect for the law… If retroactive immunity passes, it should be done with explicit statements that this is not a blessing, there should be oversight hearings to understand what happened, and Congress should include provisions that ensure that Americans' private records will not be dealt with like that again.”
A few weeks later, McCain
said this to Boston Globe:
"I think that presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is."
Why the change of heart? Could it have anything to do with his need to curry favor from the right wing of the Republican Party? On Friday, Senate Foreign Relations Chair, Senator Joseph Biden,
called out McCain on the issue.
In his statement, Biden wrote that the FISA statute, which he helped draft, "made clear the exclusive legal steps the President must take in order to conduct national security surveillance." "President Bush chose to ignore the law and now it seems Senator McCain will continue this policy," Biden writes. "Once again – there is no daylight between President Bush and Sen. McCain." "We all share the goal of capturing the terrorists and protecting national security and we can do that without violating the privacy of the American people," he added. "Like President Bush, Sen. McCain is presenting the American people with a false choice—national security or civil liberties. We need a President who understands that we can have both. It’s what our values and our Constitution demands.”
McJoan puts the issue in perspective.
Excellent first start. Hopefully more Dems will recognize what a liability the Bush/McCain position on warrantless wiretapping and telco amnesty, and put an end to any talk of "compromise" with the Republicans on this issue.

There's a very simple solution to the warrantless wiretapping debate: Congress can extend the orders that were established last year under the PAA and are set to expire in August for a period of nine months or a year, letting the next administration and Congress resolve the issue.
Almost six months ago, a few weeks after beginning Milo’s Janus Outlook I wrote my
first piece about FISA as a “battle for liberty.” At the time, there weren't any headlines in the papers or reports on the evening news about it, but I suggested that it just might be “one of those key places to which we will one day look back on as the turning point--for good or ill--in the effort to recover precious civil liberties.” I’m not sure I believed that Congress would stand up to the President on this matter; but the House did because you and thousands of others stood up. The fight still isn’t over. There are still rumblings of compromise that would give the issue away. As Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” We’ve come too far to lose now; it is one battle for liberty that we can win.

What you can do today: Call Speaker Nancy Pelosi (202-225-4965, Fax: 202-225-8259) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (202-225-4131, Fax: 202-225-4300). Tell them not to accept the Bond bill or any other compromise that would give immunity for the telecoms; and that, if any action is necessary, it would be better to vote to extend the PAA for a year than to give up everything they gained in the bill they passed in February.

- Milo

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sherman's Visit

A month-old Canadian gosling came to our house for a visit. Someone brought him to the Humane Society of Central Oregon when he was three or four days old and said that they had found him abandoned. You never know the true back stories of animals brought to the HS, and foster care givers are only told what is known if it is pertinent for the care of the animal. When Sherman was brought in, the Coordinator for the Foster Program took him to her family’s seven acres and put him with their ducks and a domestic goose. Every evening Sherman and the rest of the fowl were rounded up and herded into a pen to keep them from being coyote bait.

The coordinator had to be away from home for a week and was concerned about Sherman being left on his own at such a young age, so he came to our house. We don’t have seven acres or a pond, but we do have a fenced almost half acre. Since my wife, who is the foster care giver in our family, was preoccupied with three different sets of kittens, some well and some sick, I agreed to look out for Sherman.

Right away, Sherman made clear that he didn’t like being put in a dog kennel at night or being penned up outside during the day. After the first day, we decided to turn him loose in the back yard and see how he interacted with our dogs—a black lab mix and a long-haired terrier mix. They were curious about each other; Sherman was not afraid. They sniffed each other’s behinds (Sherman had to get up pretty good to reach the lab’s but he did) and they accepted each other.

Then, on the second day, it happened. Sherman attached himself to me, following me wherever I went. When the terrier would start barking at something outside the yard (as is her wont), Sherman would get closer to me, touching the side of my leg as I walked. As we got better acquainted, Sherman sometimes seemed to want to lead and for me to follow. I followed and after a while he would resume his place behind me. I wondered about what I had heard about Canadian geese and how they rotate places with the leader.

Sherman couldn’t understand at all why he couldn’t come into the house with me and the dogs. On the first day, he pecked at the glass door to the veranda and made known his desire to be inside with us. Since I’ve never heard of a goose that was house-trained, Sherman didn’t come in. Even though the weather was cold, I found myself spending time outside with him.

He nibbled on the grass nearby but spent much of his time on the veranda waiting for someone to come outside. I was amazed at the amount of grass he consumed, and astounded at his output. Keeping the “logs” picked up off the veranda was a major chore. You can see that he dropped one just as I took his picture. This little gosling’s output every day was more than that of our two dogs combined. I’ve heard that gosling manure is good fertilizer. I’ll see.

I had to remind myself that Sherman was a “wild” goose and will one day fly away. When geese flew over our house, Sherman would look up and offer his squeak-squeak in response to their honks. They didn’t pay him any mind, but they will. Two years ago, the coordinator had two other orphaned Canadian geese. When they learned to fly they took off in the fall with other geese. This year they came back with their “husbands” to visit. She knows it was them because she had banded them. Sherman runs and flaps his pin feathers ever day. One day in the early fall, he will probably join a flock headed south. But some Canadians choose not to migrate at all. That’s one of the things that Sherman will decide by something inside him about which we don’t have a clue.

Have you seen the movie
Fly Away Home? This 1996 movie tells how a father and daughter decide to attempt to lead a flock of orphaned Canada Geese south by air. The film is loosely based on the real-life experiences of Bill Lishman, a Canadian inventor, artist, and ultralight aircraft hobbyist. Lishman successfully led a flock of Canada Geese on a winter migration from Ontario, Canada to Northern Virginia, U.S.A. Of the 16 birds that participated in the migration, all of them returned the following year to their front yard. If you are interested in the mystery of geese and a great story, check it out.

After seven days at our house, Sherman went back home. The coordinator tells me that he is much less people oriented now that he has ducks around him again. Every day he works hard flapping his wings preparing for flight.

Politics is important, and I’ll get back to writing about it in a day or two. But right now I’m remembering my week with Sherman—one of life’s delightful mysteries —and how grateful I am for foster care givers who give of themselves for all creatures, great and small.

- Milo

Update: In response to my posting on Daily Kos I received a comment with this link to a video about an orphaned grey heron:

Friday, June 6, 2008

NASA, Political Appointees, and Obama

On Tuesday, the inspector general of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) issued a report confirming that political appointees had skewed agency scientific reports on global warming.
“Our investigation,” the report said, “found that during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public.”

The report said most evidence supported contentions that politics was “inextricably interwoven” into operations at the public affairs office in that period and that the pattern was inconsistent with the statutory responsibility to communicate findings widely, “especially on a topic that has worldwide scientific interest.”
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs at the agency when the problems surfaced, Dean Acosta denied the charges in the report. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, who wrote the request for the inquiry, had a different view.
“Global warming is the most serious environmental threat we face, but this report is more evidence that the Bush administration’s appointees have put political ideology ahead of science,” Mr. Lautenberg said in an e-mailed statement. “Our government’s response to global warming must be based on science, and the Bush administration’s manipulation of that information violates the public trust.”
editorial in Thursday’s NYT points to the larger cost of that betrayal of trust.
This administration long ago secured a special place in history for bending science to its political ends. One costly result is that this nation has lost seven years in a struggle in which time is not on anyone’s side.
There are at least two major issues in this story. The first is the need to restore scientific integrity to federal agencies. The
Union of Concerned Scientists echoed the concerns of twenty-two Nobel laureates about this administration’s abuse of science.
The United States has an impressive history of investing in scientific research and respecting the independence of scientists. As a result, we have enjoyed sustained economic progress and public health, as well as unequaled leadership within the global scientific community. Recent actions by political appointees, however, threaten to undermine this legacy by preventing the best available science from informing policy decisions that have serious consequences for our health, safety, and environment.

Across a broad range of issues—from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons—political appointees have distorted and censored scientific findings that contradict established policies. In some cases, they have manipulated the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions.
The second is the need to restore integrity generally to federal agencies. After re-election in 2004, President Bush
set about to control federal agencies in a way that had not been attempted since President Nixon after his re-election in 1972. According to James Pfiffner, a specialist in presidential personnel at George Mason University, despite Nixon’s efforts to place people loyal to him at sub-cabinet levels, he still “didn't get the kind of inside, deep-down control that they wanted." Bush, on the other hand, has been “unusually successful at enforcing control over the Cabinet agencies.”

Now, humor me and play this game we’ll call “Remember the Scandal.” Read down this list of the fifteen
federal Cabinet Departments, letting each department name remind you of stories of how these agencies have been discredited by this administration:
- Agriculture
- Commerce
- Defense
- Education
- Energy
- Health and Human Services
- Homeland Security
- Housing and Urban Development
- Justice
- Labor
- State
- Interior
- Treasury
- Transportation
- Veteran’s Affairs

If that doesn’t bring up enough scandal in your head, click on the link to each department and view the lists of agencies in the departments (FCC, FDA, NIH, etc.) or, as I also did, go on down to click on the sixty-five Independent Agencies and Government Corporations (of which NASA is one). Read them and weep.

This is really not a game. It is a reminder that restoring integrity to these agencies will be a gargantuan task. Over 3,000 political appointees are spread through the top 10 to 15 layers of management. The 1.8 million civil service workers, many of whom are nearly impossible to fire, have been the butts of jokes for decades. Take care at how you laugh at the jokes because their presence in these last seven years may have been all that prevented the complete politization of the agencies.

On Thursday presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama
announced that the Democratic Party will no longer accept gifts from lobbyists and PACs. I hope he is equally determined to restore integrity to the executive agencies by appointing qualified personnel as political appointees, and not political hacks. Rooting out the culture of cronyism and politicization will require more than replacing Bush appointees, but it is the place to start. From what I’ve seen of Obama, I suspect that he knows how important and how difficult this task will be. I hope so. What Obama is able to achieve as president and the future of our form of government may depend on how well he accomplishes this task.

- Milo

PS: If he is elected, what will Obama look back on four years from now as his most difficult task?
- Winning the nomination over Hillary Clinton
- Winning the election against McCain
- Getting the U.S. out of Iraq
- Preventing the recession from becoming a depression
- Establishing a national health care plan
- Insuring the solvency of Social Security
- Restoring credibility to federal agencies
- Something else altogether

I am interested in know what you think. You can put your answer in a comment, or you can go to my poll at the end of this article on Daily Kos, record your answer, and see what others think.